In the double abbeys of Fontevraud and Remiremont, the medieval abbesses, who governed all, followed strange rituals, typical of druids and not of Catholic nuns.
This may be one of the pieces of evidence that in medieval France some reminiscences of the ancient Druidic culture still survived among the aristocratic classes. Some of these aspects continued to stay around as narrative forms, like the Grail phenomenology and the Troubadours literature, to fade out later like all literary trends. In the meanwhile, others braved the religious-political powers, disguising into them, like the Cathar heresy, the Knights Templar order, and the less-known phenomenon of the Druidic abbesses of certain monasteries. But long before the establishment had ferociously raged at the first two groups (and to this extent it is fair to be remembered that the Knights Templar order had previously agreed, together with the Hospitaliers, to the massacres of heretics in Languedoc, physically placing their signature to give a green light to the King’s military campaign) it is easy to imagine the phenomenon of abbesses-druids, having no organized warrior groups to defend them, would be silenced sooner or later. In fact, this weird custom was bloodlessly abolished by simple Papal measures, long before Jacques de Molay ascended the stake, as the first official ecclesiastic anxiety symptoms were already present in the Council of Orange in 441 A.D., followed by Orleans in 529. And eventually ratified in 1139, by the second Lateran Council.
The above-mentioned historical, religious, and artistic phenomena might directly descend from the Celtic priestly world, that’s to say from the Druids, instead of seeking their origins either in cultural contamination during the Crusades, or in Christian esotericism that hardly ever existed. It sounds plausible that Cathars’ and Templars’ esoteric knowledge can be traced back to what had survived of the Druids’ wisdom. It appears that the French Cathars’ and Knights Templar’s peculiarity might just derive from their French aristocratic origin. From the procedural acts against Cathars and Knights Templar we know that they were accused of having become a sort of “super religion”, needing a certain “super sacrament”, and, to cap it all, carried on within certain lineages, or bloodlines. But this was not the first persecution suffered by the Druidic aristocracy. In fact, we know that the Romans engaged fiercely to completely erase Druidic influence from their empire. And this strange commitment continued in the following centuries, even after the official end of the Roman Empire, both of West and East.
But why I’m so interested in French aristocracy? The first reason is their cultural distinctness. For instance, we know that Iulius Caesar got shocked when discovered that Druids used to write in Greek. We know that in medieval and renaissance times, during the Vatican prohibition of the Greek language teaching (and learning, of course), nevertheless, the French upper classes have always been more comfortable with the Greek language than with Latin, contrary to the Italian upper classes. In this sense, only in Italy, we can speak of the rediscovery of the classical Greek texts – while in Paris university, during the “dark” Medieval ages, Plato’s Timaeus, a treatise pregnant of alchemical notions, was already officially taught. Additionally, we must not forget their involvement in the Grail phenomenology, as well as in the Troubadours Literature, and the Rennes le Chateau affair (1). Which I love to merge.
In Gaul, already during the roman occupation, Christians prevailed among town citizens and a large property aristocracy. But, still, in the Merovingian age, the countryside was largely untouched pagan. Irish missionaries were sent to manage and organize the fields and, with them, the villagers. The double abbey of Saint-Pierre de Remiremont was founded by St. Amé (disciple of St. Columban) and Romaric (monk of Luxeuil) in the Merovingian age, 620 A.D., and led by abbesses. The nuns were living on the top of the hill, the monks in the valley. During the first two centuries, the abbesses implemented the ascetic St. Columban’s rite (having much in common with the later Cathar rite). The nuns were all from the aristocracy and had to prove their 16 quarters of nobility to enter their service.
The will to abolish any form of the female diaconate pursued continuously in five councils, clearly shows the strong roots and the unusual role of this institution in the Celtic churches. In the Catholic Encyclopedia, the ecclesiastic officials summarize the Celtic high Middle ages abbesses and deaconesses’ silent existence with bare words: ” As the Celtic tradition respected women, the double monasteries of that period were led by abbesses ( to an abbess always succeeded an abbess). Monks provided security for the nuns. Exceptionally, an abbot could rule over the monks and an abbess over nuns. After 1139 (second Lateran council) almost all the double monasteries became single”. But these are just records concerning the canonical jurisdiction, what the Catholic Encyclopedia doesn’t mention are the nuns’ strange rituals that were pagan.
But true wisdom has no racial and geographic characteristics, we know that the ancients were traveling more than one might think today. So, if the deaconesses were a Celtic custom, the Catholic Encyclopedia forget to mention that the double monasteries ( male and female together) were common in Palestine and Egypt during the early Christian age. This type of organization sprang in the area at the same time as the first Christian cenobites, and it was due to women’s necessity to have some men around for practical purposes. Within these monasteries, there might be family cenobites, where the husband led the men’s community and his wife the women’s one. Commonly there were tasks in common; for instance, men were involved in construction and women in garment manufacturing.
From “Aspetti del monachesimo femminile nel mondo celtico”, or aspects of women’s monasticism in the Celtic world, by Nuccio d’Anna’s conference in 2009:
St. Columban, the founder of Remiremont abbey and of the rite that it would follow for at least two centuries, came from Ireland, a country that had a great tradition for priestesses. The vast monastery of Kildare, perhaps the most important community of nuns that ever arose in Ireland, stood on the same site where in ancient times was the sanctuary of the goddess Brigit. Rededicated and “converted”, it became the place where the famous monastic community founded by St Brigitte developed, it was ever since a “double” monastery that was inhabited enigmatically by men and women, according to a custom that today may seem absolutely strange, but back then it appears to have had a great widespread, as documents attested. Her prestige was enormous. According to a pious tradition which evidently tended to give consistency to her unusual (for today) authority simultaneously spiritual and canonical; having the bishop recited by mistake the episcopal consecration on the head of a virgin nun, he could not undo the effects of the consecration formula, having the sacrament of Ordination a lasting value, so from that moment on the holy began to waft even the aura of the only “bishop-woman” of Ireland. This is not a mere anecdote and it is also likely that this story has surfaced only in the folk part of a deep-rooted sacramental reality. Besides, this also passed such a privilege to all subsequent abbesses of Kildare monastery, to continue enigmatically to exercise an authority that was at least equal (but often higher) than that of their bishop. It was only with the Synod of Kells in 1152 that such extraordinary privilege was finally abolished and returned to the modern canonical prescriptions on the ecclesial hierarchy structure which, as you know, today totally withheld the “quasi-episcopal” role of the abbesses.
If one considers the deep Druidic rooting in the past of the populations of these regions, it seems that, through the Christian institution of deaconesses, a peculiar form that organized women’s monasticism, it was intended to readjust, transfiguring them in a contemplative environment of pure asceticism and ” virginal offer”, the archaic pre-Christian type of para-priestly habits that in the old days had allowed also the women of ancient Celtic society to take important sacred roles, very often connected to the rituals that involved clairvoyance, divination, poetic creation and the recitation of the cosmogony, such as bandrui (“the druid”), banfaith (“the woman-prophet”), banfile (“the woman-poet”). Together with definable female communities, that almost always had around some noble girls converted, and later became famous for the rigor and sanctity of their lives, there existed in Ireland and Scotland also a significant number of “double monasteries” where monks-men and consecrated virgin-maidens were present simultaneously.
And yet, that was considered for a long time as an Irish monasticism specifics, as a way to try to protect, in a rough and violent society, lonely virgins with the closeness of men who had taken a vow of celibacy. In reality, things are a bit different, of course. When trying to understand their true nature and very special status, one can not ignore the strong links with the apostolic activity of the Celtic pilgrims. On the other hand, there survived very strong evidence of a long history of intense monastic “double” life that can also be found on the continent, still blooming in the twelfth century, and a famous case of that is one of Evoriac community governed by the rule of Celtic St. Columban, who later became the well-known Faremoutiers monastery. Another famous “double” monastery was Remiremont (“Romanici Mons”) in Lorraine. Governed by the same Celtic rite that prevailed in Luxeuil, founded by brothers Romaric and Aimé in 620, shortly after St. Columban’s death, in a place called Mont Habend, it then became famous as Le Saint Mont, “the holy mountain”. Its overall structure, and the same topographical location of the buildings, was kind of a reflection and ad hoc adaptation of monastic communities who prayed in Armagh, the spiritual center of the Irish church: at the foot of the mountain was a friary, while the summit housed the nuns.
But perhaps some special rituals, remembered by A. Fournier, reveal much more. There is a series of enigmatic and amply attested sacramental forms in Remiremont abbey, that together clearly show a source that can not be framed within the normal ascetic practices used in the Christian convents, but they directly show towards ritual forms that can find their explanation within a religion derived from the old-Celtic world: the oath made by the nuns on the “Stone of Truth”; the sumptuous banquets for the various funerals; the absolutely unusual dance of the nuns around the fire of St. John the Baptist coinciding with the summer solstice, when the Sun was reaching the height of its ecliptic path, which, according to the most ancient cosmological traditions, gives “start” to the second half of the year which will be completed at winter solstice, “marked” by the feast of St. John the Evangelist; the perpetual fire set in the convent; the privilege of giving to the pope every year a white silver shod horse, a ritual that almost certainly was functional equivalent of the famous ritual prevailing in Rome at least up to the time of St. Gregory the Great, which provided a long procession in the wake of the Pope who was opening the procession on a white horse from the palace of the Lateran, followed by all the clergy and people of Rome.
But the most famous medieval “double communities” on the continent were flowering around Fontevrault, the most important monastery, one of the many founded by Robert of Arbrissel, a mystic with primordial connotations who used to go around preaching and converting, always followed by crowds of the repentant and praying people. Here too, the monastery consisting of monks and nuns followed a very particular rite. Dedicated to the Holy Virgin, it was entrusted to an abbess who always had to be a true widow, a Veuve Dame, and by no means an obvious nun who, according to church canons should have done a vow of perpetual virginity. It was this enigmatic and highly symbolic Veuve Dame to oversee all monastic foundations created by Robert, not only to those “double”, but also those purely masculine.
There is no reader of Perceval who does not remember the famous, but strange, the scene in which the young Blanchefleur (that’s to say the “virginal”, ‘”immaculate”, the cosmic principle power), covered only by her white silk robe, enters the room and, in tears, tells young knight all her misfortunes. Perceval hugs her and chastely falls asleep with the damsel: “She does not allow him to kiss her, but I do not think he bothers her, side by side, mouth to mouth, until the morning, when the day is approaching”. On the other hand, these aspects of the monastic life of the time it intended to be created on the edge of a very unusual form of “erotic mysticism”, which was all but erotic, and instead centered on the pure union of hearts, in the fusion of souls and in total disregard of the flesh. That is what in literature we will know as Amor Cortese, courtly love (2).
This aspect can help us to even understand the special friendship between Robert of Arbrissel and Plantagenet (at whose court, it is known, the ancient Celtic traditions of the Bretons, Welsh, and Scotts continued to be cultivated until the decline of the House and then merged into the legendary assets now belonging to the Crown of England), come to the point that Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart wanted to be buried not in Poitiers or London, the political and cultural capitals of their vast kingdom, but simply in the Abbey of Fontevrault.
To be continued.